Khanduri: BJP’s Face Saver
When the Bharatiya Janata Party appointed BC Khanduri as new Chief Minister of Uttarakhand last week—just two-and-a-half years after he was unceremoniously dumped—the purpose behind the move was clear. The ruling party took that step hoping it would return to power in the state in the forthcoming assembly elections due early next year by cashing in on the former Major General’s image of a “clean politician and a no nonsense administrator”.
Khanduri replaced his predecessor Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank who was shown the door owing to the allegations of corruption against him. It was, however, a smooth change of guard unlike most similar occasions that were witnessed in the brief 10-year-old history of the nascent state. Or so it seemed. For, it was evident from the body language of Khanduri and Nishank at the former’s swearing-in ceremony last Sunday that not all is well with the state unit of the ruling BJP.
A smiling Khanduri, well turned out in his off white churidar pyjama and kurta, his head covered with a black Garhwali topi greeted everybody with a polite namaste. Nishank on the other hand had a forced smile flashing on his lips. But this smile was for the television cameras. Off camera, the outgoing chief minister’s anguish was writ large all over his face.
This contrast in the body language of the state BJP’s two main leaders symbolised the dichotomy within the faction-ridden party that’s been dogged by factionalism since it won the 2007 assembly elections.
What fuelled this factionalism was the power tussle between the staunch political foes-turned-friends Khanduri and former state BJP president Bhagat Singh Koshiyari. The wily Thakur from Kumaon became Khanduri’s sworn enemy after the BJP high command anointed the latter as Chief Minister much to the chagrin of Koshiyari who thought the top slot was his by right owing to his having steered the party to victory in the 2007 elections. This tussle for power went on until, as a result of the fire of factionalism stoked by Koshiyari, the majority of the BJP legislators loyal to him rebelled against Khanduri, which resulted in the latter being replaced with Nishank in June 2007.
The months that followed saw Khanduri going into a sulk and then getting back his confidence slowly. The period also saw the coming together of two strange bedfellows–Khanduri and koshiyari who had now joined hands to overthrow Chief Minister Nishank. Soon the allegations of corruption against the Nishank government started flying thick and fast with the Opposition accusing it of various scams relating to Citurgia, a chemical factory at Rishikesh and 56 hydropower projects.
For Khanduri and koshiyari who were just waiting to pounce on Nishank, the charges of graft against him came in rather handy. They started using these allegations as a weapon against Nishank. Khanduri, quick to cash in on his clean image against Nishank, began mounting pressure on the BJP high command to replace the latter with him at the earliest. Any delay in that, he would confide in the BJP central leadership, would result in the ruling party’s defeat in the assembly elections due early next year. Significantly, both foes-turned-friends had also struck a deal whereby Koshiyari agreed to let Khanduri become Chief Minister whenever such an occasion would arise while the latter assured him (Koshiyari) of all his support to help him get back the headship of the state BJP.
What gave a further fillip to Khanduri’s covert Nishank hatao (remove Nishak) move was Gandhian Anna Hazare’s nationwide anti-graft movement. That together with the BJP’s internal survey (that predicted that the party wouldn’t get more than seven seats in the next assembly elections while showing that 46 per cent people in the state favoured Khanduri as the next Chief Minister) tilted the scale entirely in favour of the former Major General who is known for his clean image. His case became even stronger with the BJP now keen on riding the anti-corruption sentiment whipped up by Anna so as to return to power in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. Following Karnataka where Chief Minister BS Yeddyurappa was replaced owing to corruption charges against him, a change of guard the BJP think-tank thought had also become necessary in Uttarakhand especially after senior BJP leader LK Advani’s had announced his decision to take out anti-corruption yatra with an eye on the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
Khanduri has, no doubt, returned as Chief Minister. But, what next? Will the ruling BJP be able to return to power in Uttarakhand under his leadership in the forthcoming assembly elections due in February, 2012? Or, would the change of guard in the state help stem the power tussle in the BJP?
Khanduri, on his part, has begun enhancing the ruling BJP’s image ahead of the forthcoming assembly elections by initiating some anti-graft measures, which he announced soon after assuming charge. These relate to strengthening of the institution of Lokayukta in the state, making it compulsory for the bureaucrats, ministers and legislators to declare their assets by October 15. According to him, illegal assets owned by public servants and politicians would be attached with benami properties.
No doubt, these initiatives have gone down well with the people. But political analysts have their own reservations. They are not convinced that Khanduri would be able to turn things around for the BJP, given just 90 days’ time left for the next assembly elections with governance likely to remain withheld in the state for 40 days when the Election Commission of India’s code of conduct would remain effective. “Hardly 90 days’ time Khanduri is left with ahead of elections is not sufficient for him to burnish the BJP’s image by brining a turnaround in Uttarakhand where development has been eluding the people since its inception 10 years ago,” says Dr Lalit Tiwari, an Associate Professor at the Botany Department of Kumaon University’s Nainital campus. Agrees Professor Madhurendra Kumar of Kumaon University, Nainital. “The ruling BJP can perhaps hope to return to power provided Khanduri starts addressing in right earnest the issues concerning the people like water, electricity, health, roads etc,” he says.
Kumar feels that politically also the odds are heavily stacked against the BJP. “The ruling party has brought in third Chief Minister in a short span of the past about five years. The third one (Khanduri) was brought in when hardly four months are left for the next assembly elections,” he says. According to Kumar, such developments have not just created an atmosphere of political instability in the state, but they also show the BJP in a bad light, which is not going to help it at all in the next assembly elections.
Well, things appear all the more sardonic when Koshiyari, a politician known as the ‘Machiavelli of Uttarakhand’, tends to leave things to God. “He (Khanduri) is a better option,” opines the BJP’s Rajya Sabha member from the state. “Whatever God does He does it for the better,” he adds rather enigmatically as he signs off.
By M Mukundan From Dehradun